I did not see that coming.
I’m not merely talking about the specific shocks at the issue’s end – She-Hulk’s apparent demise and War Machine’s actual death – I’m talking about the entire tenor which Marvel Comics has increasingly taken on throughout the Postmodern Age of Comics, expressed here most clearly in the pages of Civil War II #1.
Let’s dispense firstly with the most innocuous and obvious of the issue’s plethora of problems. Launching an event entitled Civil War II at the same time that Captain America: Civil War is playing in theaters is the most overt attempt by Marvel thus far to promote “corporate synergy” between their comics and film divisions. This would not be a cause for complaint in itself were the host body not playing the part of the parasite. In the many decades in which comics acted as a medium entirely separate from that of cinema they were a breeding ground for big, bold stories of a strangeness and scope not possible for the budget-restrained, risk-averse, populist-pleasing form that is film. By conflating the two, by imposing editorial constraints that paradoxically lead the comics universe to more closely mirror its cinematic counterpart, comics as their own independent medium are devalued, both in perception (creating the idea that comics are just elaborate movie pitches) and in reality (by making comics that, in attempting to conform to the styles of cinema, don’t take full advantage of their own medium’s literary devices). Comics have nothing to gain by their association with movies – certainly not new readers, as fifteen years of cinematic adaptations have failed to ever evangelized the masses. This is a broader discussion that deserves full treatment elsewhere, but it merited mention here at the least.
Aside from that very general trend, Civil War II fails in several very specific ways. Tony Stark seems to be suffering from an inversion far more severe than Axis ever put him through. This is hardly his first exposure to predictive capabilities. The Illuminati were founded upon the premise that the insights of the world’s smartest superhumans were singularly sufficient to take unilateral actions such as exiling the Hulk from Earth. His support for the Superhuman Registration Act was partially motivated by Reed Richards’ predictive models of societal instability. And the Illuminati employed several early-warning detection systems to alert them before incursions occurred, including an improved version of Richards’ Bridge that could observe other universes at future times relative to their own. Moreover, Stark’s sudden argument against preemptive action at no point repudiates his past, explaining the abrupt change in character as contrition for past misdeeds. It does not even ignore the contradiction; Bendis lampshades Stark’s previous ethical framework by having him counter Rogers, “I’m not going to have a morality debate with you, Steve. Those never end well for us.”
Perhaps those never ended well for the characters, but they’d always worked for the readers because Iron Man and Captain America both were clearly defined, both in terms of their pre-existing moral differences and their pre-established filial bonds. Not only is Stark’s new concern for individual liberties inconsistent with prior violations of such, including the aforementioned superhuman conscription and subsequently Prison 42, such violations are being specifically alluded to in this quip. Further, Stark and Danvers lack the brotherhood that he and Rogers shared. These are characters with no significant history between them, lessening the dramatic stakes of their conflict.
The shame is that this is a conflict with a clear moral right and wrong, and it would benefit from Captain America’s moral authority. As it is, just as inexplicable as Stark’s latest inversion, Rogers too seems to be betraying his beliefs, siding with Ms. Danvers on the covers of upcoming issues. Did one of the higher-ups at Marvel or Disney simply get tired of Iron-Man always being the villain in these superhuman scuffles?
Whomever it is, they must likewise be responsible for also forcing the Inhumans everywhere as well. I won’t bother to address the vitriolic and frankly childish corporate politics at play in trying to substitute mutants with Inhumans; that’s well-worn ground that anyone reading this review knows in full. But I will speak to why Inhumans represent a less compelling fantasy than mutation, why they’ll never capture the public imagination as the X-Men did in the ‘90s. Mutation, as it’s portrayed in comic books, is how most laymen envision evolution, albeit speed up slightly. Actual biologists know evolution merely to be a matter of adaptation, but society sees it still in the Spencerian and Hegalian terms of progress. In that sense, mutation represents futurity, the inevitability that a real homo superior will one day walk this earth, to which we are all ancestors, and the first specimens of which might actually walk among us. This futurism is seen also in the selection of its de facto leader, Charles Xavier. Being a more evolved species, the X-Men organize themselves around a more evolved form of governance, finally able to follow the philosopher-king that Plato had once envisioned for mankind. Xavier is not the most powerful mutant nor of notable decent; he’s simply the wisest, the most morally minded, and so other mutants follow him freely.
Contra the Inhumans. If the X-Men are evolution, they represent Intelligent Design. All Inhuman genetic potential was established millennia ago, quite literally by intelligent designers in the form of Kree experimentations. Given the actual genetic lineage of humanity, the notion that any modern day human of any given ethnicity could have Inhuman DNA, but that only an extremely small subset of the population actually does, is as great a biological improbability as concussive blasts erupting out of Scott Summers’ eyes when he hit puberty. Equally retrograde is the Inhumans’ absolute monarchy. What possible political theory could justify the claim that exposure to mutagenic midsts subjects an individual to the sovereignty of Attilan and Black Bolt? While few comic readers articulate this particular objection to Marvel’s forced emphasis of Inhumans over Mutants over the past several years, I suspect they feel it nonetheless, especially in this issue.
The most damning critique of Civil War II #1, however, is that the central point of contention at the issue’s end completely misses the moral stakes outlined in it earlier. Predictive policing is morally wrong on two counts. One, it violates the privacy of law abiding citizens by monitoring their (future) actions without warrant (in either sense of the word). Two, as Tony noted, the ability to intervene means that the futures in question are mere possibilities, not eventualities. And in actuality, having intervened prior to a trespass taking place, the individual being apprehended and convicted is technically not guilty of wrongdoing.
Thanos is not covered by either of those. As an escaped prisoner of war not yet tried for his war crimes, having been locked up by the Illuminati following his invasion of Earth in Infinity, the various governments of Earth would be looking to track Thanos back down and bring him to justice. He has no right to privacy that requires protection. Secondly, Thanos was in no way innocent. The Ultimates did not assault him merely for what he might have done, but rather for the atrocities he’d already committed, particularly the murder of hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of human lives when the Cabal systematically destroyed scores of Earths under his leadership. The Ultimates’ mission was no different than every mission ever undertaken by the Avengers or the Illuminati; Stark’s anger with Ms. Danvers is, ideologically, unfounded.
Again, I did not see this coming. Especially after the wonderful zero issue, this had all the ingredients for an excellent event. Some of those even shine through still. Bendis’ dialog is as snappy as ever. Marquez’s art is every bit as polished as McNiven’s perfect pencils in the original Civil War. And yet this issue is also irrefutably a confluence of everything wrong with Marvel at the moment. It leans too strongly on its cinematic success, too lightly on consistent characterization. It pushes pointlessly Ms. Danvers and the Inhumans on a largely indifferent readership, all at the expense of more clearly defined and compelling characters such as Captain America and the X-Men. And worse of all, the political and moral message it is trying to make is completely confused in its execution.